Prescription Strength Nature

Originally published in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye.

On a scale of one to ten, what would you say your average stress level has been this week? If you’re like most Americans, it’s pretty high.

The American Psychological Association says that chronic stress is becoming a public health crisis. Roughly 40 million Americans are treated every year for some form of anxiety disorder, many of which are associated with chronic stress. That costs us $42 billion annually and represents a full one-third of mental health spending in this country. And those numbers only represent the ones that are undergoing treatment. How many of us just bear the burden of our stress day in and day out?

This crisis isn’t just confined to adults. A large and growing number of kids are being affected by this epidemic as well. One research study found one-third of kids between the ages of eight and seventeen reported experiencing physical health symptoms related to stress. Another study found that 86 percent of kids surveyed reported being affected by their parents’ stress.

Apparently “trickle-down stress-onomics” is a real thing.

It’s interesting that this “stress-idemic” seems to have a direct correlation to our increasing disconnect from nature. Globally, more than 50 percent of humans now live in urban areas. In the US, 81 percent of us are now urbanites.

In other words, fewer and fewer of us live where natural environments are easily accessible. Granted, our little corner of the Midwest is no New York City. But when was the last time you really got out into nature? When was the last time you went someplace quiet where you could truly relax without the sound of traffic or neighbors breaking your concentration?

Then there’s our growing addiction to electronics. There are now officially more mobile devices than humans on earth. On average, Americans spend more than ten hours a day in front of a screen. But when was the last time you read something online or on social media that helped you relax?
No wonder we’re so stressed out.

Yet we know that some of the best treatment for this stress-idemic happens to be right outside. Literally.

A ton of scientific research has linked getting into nature with all sorts of positive health effects, including reduction in stress-induced symptoms and disorders. One of my recent favorites comes from Stanford where researchers found that participants that walked in a natural environment had reduced activity in a part of the brain commonly linked to the onset of depression. Walking in a city environment, the study found, had no such effect.

Other studies from all over the world support the conclusion that exposure to natural environments is a powerful treatment for a number of ailments, especially chronic stress.

So for those of you that could use a dose or two of nature, here’s a prescription. I call it the Rule of Fifteen.

Go to the woods somewhere, preferably outside of town. For most of us, there’s likely such a place within fifteen minutes of home. Leave your phone in the car or shut it off completely. Spend fifteen minutes walking leisurely into the woods. If you’re on a trail, pick a spot where you can step off with relative ease. Then take fifteen steps or more off the trail into the woods, pick out a comfy spot and sit. Quietly.

Ignore the clock. Just be part of the woods for a bit. Take a deep breath. Relax. Meditate.
As you do, let go of whatever stressful weight you’re carrying. Leave it in the woods. The squirrels will bury it for you. They’re good at that sort of thing. I find it helpful to focus on the points of my body that are in contact with the ground. I envision all my stress, worry, anxiety, and fear flowing out of me and dissipating into the earth through those points. Whenever your mind wanders, and it will often, just let the thought go and refocus. Do whatever works for you to clear your mind for a bit.
It may take a few tries but there will come a point after this sort of nature therapy where you’ll feel a noticeable physical and mental change. You’ll feel lighter, happier, more resolved, or just a bit less on edge. Different people have different experiences but the effect can happen in as little as fifteen minutes. I’m not saying it’s pure euphoria by any means but for me, it’s about a fifteen percent or greater improvement. And considering how little time I invested, that’s a pretty good rate of return.

A fifteen percent improvement from a fifteen minute time investment within fifteen minutes of home. That’s the power of prescription strength nature.

Apply liberally. Share with others. Repeat.